Julian Fellowes’ ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is Seriously Lacking in Passion

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a play which has been done to death. Keeping track of all the adaptations is aggravating, but on top of that, there are other plays or musicals which were, at the very least, inspired by this classic tragedy (“West Side Story” is the most obvious example). Since Shakespeare’s time, “Romeo and Juliet” has been done in many different styles and taken place in various time periods. It seems the only way to do a production of it these days is to break free of the way it was done during Shakespeare’s time. Baz Luhrmann’s modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” was absolutely entrancing in how it made us feel like we were watching the doomed story of two young lovers for the first time, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes never had a shortage of chemistry between them.

Taking all of that into account, that makes this “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Carlo Carlei and adapted to the screen by Julian Fellowes, come across as a renegade version for they have instead brought Shakespeare’s work back to its traditional and romantic version. It is filled with medieval costumes, balcony scenes and duels, and the filmmakers even got the opportunity to shoot it at the story’s original location of Verona, Italy. But for all the effort put into this umpteenth film adaptation of this famous tragedy, the whole endeavor feels like it is severely lacking in passion.

Perhaps the main problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads, Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who play Romeo and Juliet. When they first meet at the dance, their attraction to one another is not all that palpable and feels rather forced. While both actors do their best to connect with one another, their relationship never felt believable enough for me to really care about what happens to them. In fact, towards the end, I started to get impatient and kept waiting for Romeo to do himself in already.

Steinfeld is a wonderful actress, having deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance in “True Grit” (though she should have been for Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress). As Juliet, she does well and has quite a radiant smile which lights up the screen. At the same time, she seems miscast in this role when paired with Booth. While Steinfeld is around the same age as Juliet, she seems too young to be taking on this famous role now. It’s a shame to say this because she isn’t bad, but I came out of this movie thinking an actress a few years older might have fit this role more realistically.

As for Booth, it takes too long for him to come to life as Romeo. When we first see him, he doesn’t seem all that crazy about Rosalind even after we see him making a bust of her likeness. When it comes to the classic balcony scene, the attraction between him and Juliet feels awkward as they still don’t seem as madly in love as they are supposed to be. Booth’s performance does get stronger as the movie goes on, but he never digs deep enough into the character to where it seems like he is only touching the surface of Romeo’s dilemmas.

Carlei, whose work as a director I am not familiar with, does capture the beauty of Verona, Italy to where it made me want to get on a plane and visit it. His handling of the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, however, is not clearly defined, and we never quite get a full idea of what made them hate each other in the first place. This is the original gang story for crying out loud! As for the battle scenes, they feel a bit too staged and could have been far more exciting.

Fellowes is best known for creating the popular show “Downton Abbey,” and he seems a natural to adapt any Shakespeare play let alone “Romeo and Juliet.” He preserves the dialogue for the most part, and it’s clear he has a deep love and understanding for the Bard’s words. At the same time, this film has been severely affected by a misleading advertisement which stated it would not be using Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue but would still follow the play’s plot. But having been exposed to this play many times myself, I could not tell the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what Fellowes came up with. Go figure.

It is a real shame because this “Romeo & Juliet” has a number of great supporting performances which almost make it worth watching. Ed Westwick makes a fierce antagonist out of Tybalt, his eyes filled with rage over a betrayal he can never forgive. Lesley Manville, best known for work with Mike Leigh, is priceless as the Nurse and succeeds in taking this character from her ecstatic highs to her tragic lows. Manville never misses a beat every time she appears onscreen.

There’s also Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and he gives the character of Juliet’s father a twisted feel which really makes his performance stand out. Kodi-Smit McPhee is very strong as Romeo’s good friend Benvolio, Natascha McElhone gives us a sympathetic Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome presence as the Prince.

But it should be no surprise to see Paul Giamatti stealing the show as Friar Laurence, as it’s truly one of the best interpretations of this role I have ever seen. Friar Laurence is the moral center of “Romeo & Juliet,” and he sees the union between the two lovers as a way of bringing peace between the Capulets and the Montagues. I could tell just how much Giamatti put his heart and soul into this role, and I wept with him when his well-intentioned plans fall apart so tragically.

Still, despite all the great performances, this “Romeo & Juliet” never really comes to life in the way a truly great Shakespearean production does. The language in his plays is so rich, and it can be so intoxicating to take in when done right. This is how I felt after watching Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, but Carlei is not as successful in making this famous playwright’s words come alive, and he is working from a script by Fellowes for crying out loud!

Every generation definitely deserves their own version of “Romeo and Juliet,” but this one is not going to do it. They will be better off with Baz Luhrmann’s version which ended up breaking my heart as it made me wonder if things might take a different turn from what we remember. Or perhaps it was just that big crush I had on Clare Danes which made Baz Luhrmann’s movie affect me so much. Oh well…

* * out of * * * *

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ is His Biggest and Most Flawed Film So Far

Noah movie poster

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a movie I have conflicted feelings about. On one hand it is a deeply flawed effort with moments which belong in another movie, but on the other hand it brings up questions inspired by the actions of the characters which I found endlessly fascinating, and those same questions stayed with me long after the movie ended. With “Noah,” Aronofsky has been handed the biggest budget he has ever had to make a movie with, but what amazes me is how much of his vision ended up on the silver screen. You’d think Paramount Pictures would have the last say on final cut, but Aronofsky has managed to graduate to the big leagues without losing his unique voice as a filmmaker.

The movie gets off to a shaky start as we watch a young Noah being initiated into manhood by his father with what looks like a magical snakeskin, but then his father is brutally murdered in front of him by Tubal-Cain and Noah runs like hell to get away from him and his followers. For a moment, I thought this would turn into a revenge movie with Noah going after Tubal-Cain to where the ark becomes a secondary story. Fortunately, this was not the case.

The story then leaps forward many years later when Noah (now played by Russell Crowe) is a husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a father of three boys: Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, it’s not long until Noah begins having frightening dreams about a great flood swallowing up every living and breathing thing on earth. Eventually, he comes to discover he has been giving a mission: to build an enormous ark and fill it up with animals so that when the great flood comes to wipe out the evilness of humanity, the animals will survive to restart civilization anew.

One of the big stumbling blocks of “Noah” comes when we are introduced to fallen angels known as the “Watchers.” They are these enormous stone creatures who tower over all humans, and they kept reminding me of those tree creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Furthermore, the “Watchers” almost took me out of the movie completely and had me thinking about those stone creatures William Shatner wanted to put in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” While watching “Noah,” I kept thinking about what Shatner must have been thinking when he Aronofsky’s film. Shatner was probably thinking, “Damn you Aronofsky! My film had biblical themes in it too! Why didn’t I get to put any stone creatures in my movie?”

When all those animals start making their way to the almost completed ark, you can tell they were all created using CGI effects. Then again, I can’t blame Aronofsky for going this route as directing real life animals must feel next to impossible especially in a movie like this. Plus, if he did get access to real animals, how would he have dealt with all those animal droppings the crew would have spent hours trying to clean up? Imagine the smell that would have created. Yuck!

As “Noah” continued on, the things which bothered me began to make sense, and the film really hit its stride just before the ark sets sail in the flood. I figured the movie would end there, but it goes on to look at how Noah and his family deal with issues like survivor’s guilt and questioning the motivations of “the creator” (the word God is never mentioned). Aronofsky does terrific work in giving all these characters complexities which render them far more fascinating, and the challenges they face come to define who they are. This is not a good guy vs. bad guy story as all the characters inhabit a morally grey area, and it gets to where we’re not sure who to root for.

Since his Oscar winning turn in “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s career has been all over the place as he has given terrific performances in “Cinderella Man” and “American Gangster” and suffered through cinematic misfires like “A Good Year” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” As Noah, Crowe does some of the best work he’s done in a while as he humanizes a character made famous through biblical tales. When Noah threatens a course of action which may very well to his family apart, Crowe still makes us feel for him as he struggles to remain true to what is asked of him.

Jennifer Connelly also gives one of her best performances as Noah’s wife, Naameh, and no, she does not play Joan of Arc (Keanu Reeves got that wrong in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). As Naameh, she plays a character similar to the one she played in “A Beautiful Mind;” a woman very much in love with her husband and yet deeply afraid of what he is capable of doing. Connelly is no stranger to the Aronofsky universe, having given such an earth shattering performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” and she is not afraid to go to emotional extremes. Watching her trying to reach her husband, Connelly sucks you vividly into the fearful state she has been thrust into, and she makes us share in her desperation to protect what is left of humanity.

“Noah” is also well served by a strong supporting cast which includes Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson who shows there is more to her than playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” movies. In addition, Aronofsky brings along his dedicated team of collaborators such as editor Andrew Weisblum, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Speaking of Mansell, he gives us yet another great film score with “Noah.” While it might not be on a par with his work on “Requiem for a Dream,” he gives the movie a great emotional power, and he continues to be one of the more unique film composers working i today.

So again, “Noah” has some glaring flaws I could have done without, but its strengths eventually outweigh its weaknesses to where the movie had a strong impact on me. I’m not sure I will ever forget hearing all those screams from people begging to be rescued while Noah and his family sail away in the ark, and Aronofsky is fearless in questioning the audience as to what they would have done were they in his position. This movie also shows how even biblical characters have dysfunctional families to deal with, so we have no business being surprised when we have to deal with the same thing in life.

When all is said and done, I’m glad that Aronofsky managed to get his vision of “Noah” to the big screen without too much studio interference. All the same, I hope he thinks twice about putting giant stone creatures in his next film.

* * * out of * * * *